The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
  • Political Junkie Archive

  • ScuttleButton, Ken's weekly puzzle

  • Ken Rudin biography

    Politics Columns:

  • Early Returns
  • State of Play
  • Money Talks

  • Campaigns section

    Political Junkie
    Send your questions about campaigns and elections.
    All Politics Is Foreign

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, June 4, 1999

    Question: Would you agree that Sens. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are the most qualified of the GOP presidential candidates, at least in regards to foreign relations, since both are on key Senate committees? Won't foreign policy be extremely important in the next election? – Laurie Letourneau, Shrewsbury, Mass.

    Answer: Right now the media seems fixated with George W. Bush's wild and crazy past and Al Gore's wooden personality. Hopefully the tenor of the debate will improve by next year. But unless American soldiers are sent to the Balkans and begin dying in large numbers, the election will likely turn on issues other than foreign policy.

    Smith, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a longtime hawk on national defense and active on Vietnam POW/MIA issues. But he is not focusing on foreign policy during his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination, preferring instead to talk about abortions (he's against them) and guns (he's for them).

    McCain, on the other hand, is a different story. A true war hero, he is perhaps staking his future on the issue. Nobody has the kind of credibility he has on foreign policy, and when he speaks – as when he called for sending ground troops to Kosovo, or when he savages President Clinton's policy in Yugoslavia – people listen.

    Foreign policy isn't often a defining issue in presidential politics, as it was for LBJ.
    (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Still, it's unusual to see a presidential candidate advocate sending troops abroad. Presidents Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 all pledged in their campaigns not to send American boys into battle in World War I, World War II and Vietnam respectively. All were returned to office those years, and all broke their pledges within short periods of time. McCain's call for ground troops goes against the historical grain.

    Question: Is Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) safe in his 2000 reelection bid even with Al Gore at the top of the Democratic ticket? – Gerald McCormick, Chattanooga, Tenn.

    Answer: I would hesitate to call any officeholder "safe" a year and a half before an election. And as you point out, Frist, a Republican seeking a second term, will have to buck whatever coattails Gore may have at home. But at this point it's hard to see Frist losing.

    So far the Democrats have not come up with a challenger. One possible hopeful is Rep. Harold Ford Jr. He is ambitious and would love to serve in the Senate, but at 29 and with just two and a half years in office, he may need a bit more seasoning.

    Already in the race is John Jay Hooker, once a promising young liberal (who was close with Robert Kennedy) but who has long since become a perennial candidate and somewhat of a joke. He ran as an independent in the 1996 Senate race and garnered less than one percent of the vote. In 1998, as the Democratic nominee for governor, he got less than 30 percent – the worst showing by a Tennessee Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Reconstruction. In addition, he has been feuding with Gore for some time, and it's no secret the vice president would prefer another candidate on the ballot.

    The Democrat who might give Frist his toughest battle is Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen. But Bredesen, who ran a respectable race for governor in 1994, appears eager to try again for that office in 2002, when two-term GOP incumbent Don Sundquist is term-limited. Democrats in the Volunteer State could use a few more volunteers.

    The other point is that the reputed strength of Gore in Tennessee may be overstated. In 1994, when the vice president campaigned long and hard for his party's candidates, the results were a disaster. Republicans captured both Senate seats – Frist upset Democrat incumbent Jim Sasser and Fred Thompson defeated Rep. Jim Cooper (D) for Gore's old seat. The GOP also won the governorship that year with Sundquist, and picked up two House seats. Then, in 1996, even with Gore on the ballot, Republican Sen. Thompson easily retained his seat.

    Question: I was in an antique store this weekend and was fascinated by a basket of political buttons. The buttons are apparently reproductions of ones used during campaigns from 1896-1948. These buttons were dated 1972 and listed the candidate and the year of his race on the side. I bought a few as conversations pieces for my office (I teach courses in rhetoric and political communication at Auburn University), but have been wondering about the history of the political button. When were they first used and by whom? – Dr. Susan Fillippeli, Auburn, Ala.

    Buttons first appeared in the 1896 campaign between McKinley and Bryan.
    (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Answer: I'm glad you asked. I've been accumulating, trading and selling campaign buttons for over 30 years, with a collection that has surpassed 70,000 items. I've appeared several times this year on CNN's "Inside Politics" talking about this very subject. So naturally I think that Dr. Fillippeli has asked a very intelligent question. (Those who know my penchant for collecting buttons will accuse me of making this question up, but this and every question in "Political Junkie" are real.)

    Campaign items have been around since the early 1800s, mostly in the form of metal tokens, ribbons, flags and even clothing buttons. It wasn't until the presidential campaign of 1896, the battle between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, when political buttons as we know them first appeared. That campaign was fought over gold and silver coinage ratio, and many buttons reflected the issue. The period between 1896 and 1920 was when the design, detail and color of buttons were at their most luxurious.

    During the 1968 and 1972 political seasons, various manufacturers put out reproductions of real presidential campaign buttons. These were more of an election-year gimmick than an effort to deceive serious collectors. In 1968, the Kleenex Co. manufactured a series of reproductions, but all say "Kleenex" on the buttons' curl. Over the years I've found some antique shops selling these reproductions as the real McCoys, but any casual observer should be able to notice the markings on each button.

    Now for a shameless plug: If you like campaign trivia, and can't get enough political buttons in this column, check out my weekly ScuttleButton puzzle.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar